Some education technology vendors are eager to get their wares in front of school and district decision-makers. But that enthusiasm is often a one-way street.
School leaders like Martin Cisneros can find themselves fielding pitches at all hours while juggling day-to-day operations. His rule of thumb for aspiring vendors: “Don’t come with a solution without a problem.”
Cisneros, an academic technology specialist at the Santa Clara County Office of Education in California, and Traci Bonde, the director of instructional technology for the Los Gatos-Saratoga Union High School District in Santa Clara County, joined EdSurge last month for a conversation about thoughts and pet peeves when it comes to education technology review and adoption.
Cisneros’ office works with 31 school districts, has a budget of about $308 million and directly works with about 19,000 students, according to its website. Bonde’s district consists of two high schools and works with about 4,000 students in total.
What follows are highlights from the conversation, edited for length and clarity.
How do you manage the flow of pitches from potential vendors?
Traci Bonde: As a veteran administrator, I don’t entertain cold calls or emails, regardless of what is presented to me—whether it’s a free lunch or a free computer. From a marketing perspective, those tactics don’t work. I have a tendency to delete, delete, delete.
If we have a problem to solve—which is where I start from—then I will reach out to district partners and the professional associations that I work with.
Martin Cisneros: I normally reply with, ‘Thank you, but we’re not looking at your service. We’ll keep your information and when it arises, then we’ll connect with you.’ For a lot of folks, they thank us. But what I don’t like is, after I reply, you come back and offer lunch. And if you do that again the third time around, then I’m likely blocking you.
I look at outside resources and edtech organizations like CETPA, CUE, iNACOL and ISTE, for example, to connect with people who have tried the products to see if they could be a solution for our teachers.
How do you make decisions about what to adopt?
Bonde: The decision-making process varies based on who the players are. If it is a top-heavy organization, many of the decisions are made in cabinet based on responses to parties and powers like the state government, the federal government, the local community. People in committees make decisions, which then trickle down to classrooms.
I have also been in organizations that are very grassroots-based, where teachers brought much of the innovation and change around the adoption and use of technology.
In my current role at a small district, we have committees consisting of external stakeholders, vendors and internal folks. We do our best to make sure that what we implement makes sense, is sustainable and has a budget so that we don’t go out for a grant, adopt something, and then discover six to eight months later that we have no way of funding it moving forward. Sometimes, our board of trustees helps guide those decisions.
I am also part of a small group of neighboring district leaders. We’ve banded together because we have similar needs, budgets and staff constraints. We’re looking at opportunities to collaborate and become a consortium in dealing with our vendors. We’re looking at some IT initiatives between a few of us, and we’re leveraging our staff to support to one another.
How can a county office provide districts with support and guidance around technology?
Cisneros: Once a month we host a committee in which we get every technology leader and director to, not only learn about the latest and greatest, but to share their successes in overcoming problems. We like to see what people’s obstacles are and how, as a group, we can come up with solutions and problems. People come in and say, ‘Hey, we’re looking for this.’ Or, ‘We have this problem with this implementation. Does anybody have any suggestions or answers?’
The nice thing about having those type of meetings is that the answer is, yes, people have been in that situation. Often, the larger school districts can help out the smaller ones. But the smaller districts can sometimes move more quickly and say, 'Oh, here’s this latest technology or development.'
What major technology challenges do you face?
Cisneros: The recent one is the data privacy issue. You have everything including school districts getting new curriculum with digital components, which raises the question: 'What information are they getting from our students?'
Then there are teachers who go out and find resources to use but have no idea about the ramifications of connecting students to those services. Every year there’s a new product. Whether or not they are compliant with COPPA, FERPA or CIPA or any of the student data privacy laws is not always clear.
Another question is: ‘What do we do with the old computers now? And what’s the total cost of ownership?’ For a lot of school districts, there are also new jobs being created, and questions about what those job descriptions look like—things we really didn’t think about before the Common Core state standards and online state testing were rolled out.
Bonde: In not just education technology, but across our entire back end of systems and enterprise-level solutions, our priority is in the realm of security. To comply with state and federal law, what does that mean for districts that don’t have very robust cybersecurity solutions in place? How do we ensure that in the spirit of innovation and flexibility, we make sure there are parameters around what our students are doing online, what our teachers are introducing in classrooms, and how we’re interacting with our parents?
How has the conversation with parents about education technology changed?
Bonde: Our parents are more concerned than ever around what’s going on with their kids online. Ten, 12 years ago, it was more around new adoption—going online and doing school work at home. Our parents were really digging that. They’d have access to their kids’ accounts, and they could see exactly how their little ones were doing.
Fast forward to now. I find myself having ongoing conversations with many parent groups about how to navigate this new world that we’re in with their students online. All of the free online resources that are now out there are beyond what used to be only available at tutoring centers. That has shifted a lot of parents’ perspectives and what they talk about with a district tech leader, a principal or even a classroom teacher.
Cisneros: What we’re looking at now is how can schools help with the total well-being, the digital well-being of our kids. The last question I remember getting is: ‘What’s a typical digital diet for our child?’
How do you feel about teachers going on their own to try apps in their classrooms?
Bonde: Before California enacted stricter data privacy laws, it was a lot more like the Wild Wild West. Teachers would meet edtech companies at a conference, which would then give free accounts and say, 'You’ve got to try my product. It’s going to change your life.'
That has shifted a bit as we have begun to educate the faculty about the risk of ‘going rogue,’ as we call it. It’s risky, especially if there is a student data element to it.
What I’ve seen in the last two or three years is a lot more, ‘Hey, this person reached out to me and they’ve got this tool. What do you think?’ A well-qualified leader, be it at a school, district or county level, will then scrutinize that tool and read through the privacy policies and how it is sharing data and be able to guide the teacher.
There are a lot of districts out there that also have mechanisms in place to monitor what the teachers and students are using. That has gone a long way to help eliminate some of that Wild West mentality we had just five years ago.
How do you feel about freemium?
Bonde: I have been supporting free tools forever, and the number of tools from various edtech providers has definitely not slowed down. The only new piece when we consider free versus paid really comes down to elements of sustainability and data privacy.
We’re still in the Wild West. Some edtech companies are folding because they don’t have the capital to even offer a paid version, let alone free. But until then, I think we will continue to ride the rails. We pay a lot of money for instructional resources, so anywhere where we can balance those with free tools, we’ll consider them as long as they are safe and secure.
Cisneros: I love freemium tools. I love the fact that some companies will give the free premium version to teachers if they apply with their school credentials.
Materials are expensive. If I can somehow devise a way to make the curriculum accessible to all my students, to create different pathways for them to understand the information—and if it’s not in our current curriculum, then use open educational resources to supplement that—I think that’s something more and more school districts are open to.